Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

♥♥♥♥♥ -4/5

The first thing to point out about S.J. Watson’s debut is that it feels like a modern update of Stephen King’s, Misery; the story of someone trapped inside a home, relying on the support of another to help and heal them. Unlike Misery, Ben is no Annie Wilkes and in the first half of the book our loyalty switches rapidly between Ben and Christine as we attempt to figure out exactly how much we can truly trust Christine’s first person narration. This is, after all, a woman who cannot hold a memory for longer than a day.

In Ben we find the doting husband, his daily reminders of his love for his wife are both sweet and slightly chilling. A sense of unease sweeps through great swathes of the book as we attempt to unravel how Christine’s history might actually be pieced together.

Finding ways to write an engaging narrative when your narrator has no memory is certainly no easy task but Watson navigates this issue with ease; his pacing is precise; his plotting engrossing; and his prose crackle with the anticipation of what may be revealed next. He also writes from the point of view of a woman extremely well. At no point does Christine’s voice feel untrue or forced.

The final half of the book feels more obvious in direction; I certainly felt I knew what would eventually unravel in the story and it became more of a case of figuring out how and when. The plausibility factor also slips slightly, too many coincidences equal elements that feel slightly far-fetched, chiefly in relation to Ben and his activities in the latter half of the book.

In the end, my predictions regarding the ending turned out to be right, but it was still highly entertaining to reach the denouement. Watson’s writing is sharp and detailed. Despite the books second half niggles I found the story highly evocative and entertaining. A must read for anyone who loves a good psychological thriller.

LIKE THRILLER’S? READ MY OTHER REVIEWS HERE.

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Review: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

♥♥♥♥♥ -4/5

How Music Got Free is the true story of how one man unintentionally undone a multi-billion dollar empire. It’s also the story of how another man, the most powerful in music, attempted to reinvigorate a dying format whilst being paid an obscene amount of money. Finally, it’s the story of how one German electrical engineer made it all possible.

The MP3 has a lot to answer for. Its ability to shrink music data to a 12th of its size enabled the distribution of music via the internet. This, in turn, created an entire sub-culture of people who assumed that it was their right to listen to the latest Beyonce album without paying a cent.

Its inventor, a German named Karlheinz Brandenburg, never intended that such an invention would result in the entire collapse of an industry. But there were some who always envisaged a future where music was streamed online, without the need for tapes, CDs or hard drive storage. What those people didn’t care to plan for was how musicians would recoup the costs.

Stephen Witt plots the story of MP3s invention, rise and subsequent dominance in an intense and highly-evocative story, which gets to the heart of the corruption, greed and genius in the music industry.

The book details the rise of the Warez scene, usually called ‘The Scene’, and a particular group called Rabid Neurosis (RNS). Over its 11-year lifespan the group, and one member of its fraternity in particular, would be responsible for the early leak of over 20,000 music titles. Acts including Kanye West, Beyonce, the Buzzcocks, Foo Fighers, LCD Soundsystem, Nick Cave and Taylor Swift would all fall foul to RNS as it leaked albums weeks, sometimes months, ahead of schedule.

But this story actually begins way back in 1982, detailing the struggles of Brandenburg and his team to get his MP3 format noticed in a market where corruption seemed the dominant force. Witt’s cast of real-life characters are subtlety detailed, and often brought to life with a sympathetic edge; there’s Dell Glover, the unassuming worker and RNS member, who works at Universal Music’s pressing plant in North Carolina; Doug Morris, head of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011; and Karlheinz Brandenburg, the genius who developed the MP3 format at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen All three are central to Witt’s astonishing narrative arc.

But there are many other players, too; Gottfrid Svartholm Warg, one of Pirate Bay’s unforgiving creators; Alan Ellis, the modest 21 year-old creator of Oink’s Pink Palace, a highly prominent BitTorrent tracker site which closed when Ellis went to trial; Steve Jobs and his revolutionary Apple corporation; and of course Spotify, a bit player in the narrative’s final third, but an ominous shadow none the less.

One group who are notable by their absence are the musicians whose works of art gave such meaning to the lives of each of the aforementioned players. No voice is given to how destructive the major record labels were in failing to act quickly enough when new technology raised its head; nor is there room in Witt’s highly capable reportage for how the ignorance of the illegal copyrighters, in deeming it their right to upload at their will, was catastrophic to the artists at the heart of the story.

Perhaps because, by his own admission, Stephen Witt was an avid collector of illegally pirated music. During his college years he racked up an impressive back-catalogue of albums by artists he loved, hated or had no interest in. Why? Because he could. It really is that simple.

Final Thoughts?

How Music Got Free is a fascinating and addictive insight into the music industry. A book which details how technology revolutionised the way we listen to, and think about, music.

Read my other September reviews here.

Have you read How Music Got Free? Let me know what you thought.

Review of No one belongs here more than you. Stories by Miranda July.

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

♥♥♥♥♥ -4/5

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

From the blurb: “In her remarkable stories of seemingly ordinary people living extraordinary lives, Miranda July reveals how a single moment can change everything.”

Things I liked about this book

I thought these were just my starter friends and the real ones would come along later. But no. These are my real friends.

What I have to admit first is that I had no prior knowledge of Miranda July before I picked up this book. I chose to read it purely on the basis of its intriguing title. Having now done my research, I’ve come to realise that when it comes July you either fall at her alter and worship, or dismiss her out-of-hand for her hipster cred.

With none of those preconceived notions to fall back on I read this collection with a complete separation from expectation. And I’m glad I did.

July’s prose read like they’ve fallen straight out of her head, onto the page. Her stories feel spontaneous, yet weighed down in a grim reality; her characters are filled with loneliness, despair and anxiety.

There’s also a fair dose of fantasy, voyeurism and desire projected into the mundaneness of these characters’ lives. Especially where sex is concerned; and sex usually is concerned to some degree. Though often it’s murky, unrequited and fairly passionless sex. The kind which leaves you feeling like you need a shower after reading about it.

Thankfully, it isn’t all sombre. But when humour is concerned it’s often a very dark comedy which sneaks into proceedings. One story which bucks this trend entirely, and my favourite from the collection, is The Swim Team. I won’t give any of its premise away, but it’s possibly one of the funniest things I’ve ever read and the story most worthy of seeking out.

July’s style won’t be to everyone’s taste, and this is a collection not built for the faint of heart, but if you like your short stories short, your characters deeply flawed, and your prose profound then July may just be your new favourite writer.

Things I didn’t like about this book

In reading the book in one big gulp I found that most of the central characters voices felt interchangeable. Perhaps this was because more often than not July hangs her stories on profoundly unsettled and troubled women. Maybe she feels she can write their lives better but their voices all seem to come from the same deep well of unhappiness and discomfort, with very little to distinguish between them.

With that being said, the balance between despair and comedy within the collection as a whole could also have been more evenly struck. There’s a real darkness which pervades most of the narratives in the collection and you’re either going to really like that or be very put off. Luckily, I was in the former category. I read this book in three hours straight and couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

Final Thoughts

Fantastically offbeat and enviably well-written, Miranda July’s first collection of short stories is brilliant, thought-provoking and unflinchingly sad. There’s also room for some truly laugh-out-loud moments, too.

Fan of short stories? I also reviewed Kirsty Logan’s short story collection, A Portable Shelter. Read the review here.

Have you read No one belongs here more than you? Let me know what you thought in the comments section below.

Review of A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

♥♥♥♥♥ -4/5

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

Ruth and Liska are about to be parents. In their quiet cottage in the north of Scotland they decide to impart some wisdom to their unborn child by taking it in turn to tell short stories to their baby. They keep their stories a secret from each other and fashion these tales from fantastical, mythical and bittersweet characters; selkie fishermen, werewolves, witches, dragons and runaways, all in search of something. In each story there’s a truth to be learned and a gift to be given, but only when Ruth and Liska are open with each other can the two most important lessons in life be taught.

Things I liked about this book

Kirsty Logan has always had a way with words both lyrical and enchanting and in this, her second published collection of shorts, she once again delivers a literary treasure trove of stories.

The clever way the book is pulled together by the thread of Ruth and Liska gives a strong central focus to the collection and offers readers a chance to learn by their wisdom.

Some stories standout more than others, and I was particularly taken by Cutting Teeth, The Perfect Wife, Flinch, The Mother of Giants and The Ghost Club. For me, Logan seems to connect best when she pairs her adept writing ability with stories connected wholly, or in part, with water. Tales, such as opening short Cutting Teeth, glimpse her fantastic ability to be playful with language. I loved her use of words, such as, ‘meatsweet… tumbledust… and starscent’ from that story in particular as they offered a highly evocative sense of place.

Within the collection, love and loss are perhaps the two most important elements and when paired with Logan’s visceral landscapes, which are always deliciously descriptive, I couldn’t fail to be moved.

Things I didn’t like about this book

As a collection of short stories goes, A Portable Shelter is very strong. I’ve yet to find a short story collection in which every short connects with me equally and so I cannot condemn the book because some stories grabbed me more than others.

Even within the stories in which I felt less of a pull – Ex-, or Small World, for example – there were still glimpses of something telling and/or beautiful; or a thread by which to learn a vital lesson.

Final Thoughts

A Portable Shelter is a beautiful collection of stories, crafted by an author with a distinctive and heartfelt voice.

I also loved Nod by Adrian Barnes, read the review here.

Review of Room by Emma Donoghue

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes, or which give some clues to a character’s development. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

Jack and Ma live in Room, a small eleven feet squared space with a skylight and a locked door. This world is the only one Jack has ever known. His TV keeps him company but Jack knows that only the things which happen inside Room are real. That is, until Ma tells him that there is actually a world outside, a world full of adventure and possibility. But is Jack brave enough to save his Ma from Room, and does he actually want to leave?

Things I liked about this book

Not just liked, but loved.

Choosing to narrate the story from the perspective of a five-year old was probably one of the best decisions Emma Donoghue made when she began writing Room. Once I began reading I couldn’t stop. I had to know how this story unfurled.

Everything is pitched perfectly – from the pacing straight through to characterisation. In Jack we find a narrator who is wise beyond his years in so many ways and yet he’s been cut off from the world since birth. His perspective is wonderful; uplifting in moments of true heartache and genuine and sincere throughout, thanks to his literal take on the world.

I rooted for him and for Ma throughout the novel. I applauded Ma her for her perseverance, determination and eternal love for her son. Donoghue’s ability to plot the lives of two people who know nothing else except life in an eleven foot squared room is truly breathtaking; she somehow manages to transform the mundane into a series of extraordinary events.

I was gripped throughout and desperate to know how this story would end. But as with all good books, the ending came all too soon and I was left wishing that she had charted more of these characters lives.

This really did feel like one of those novels which only comes around every so often. A novel which changes you and changes your whole way of thinking about the world.

For Room Donoghue deserves every literary accolade given to her.

Things I didn’t like about this book

There wasn’t a thing I didn’t like about this novel. I understood every choice Donoghue made in establishing these characters. Her decision to keep Old Nick in the background of the drama gives him a shadowy and grotesque edge and keeps him away from any undeserving spotlight.

Her choices for Ma in how she has chosen to bring Jack up – leading him to believe that there is no world outside of Room, breastfeeding him despite his age – are decisions which allow us the opportunity to glimpse into the head-space of Ma and understand that her entire life has become about Jack, not the hell-hole of which she finds herself a prisoner.

Final Thoughts

Room is a truly raw yet life-affirming book. A beautiful and engrossing read that will make you count your blessings and give you a new perspective on life.

If you’ve read Room by Emma Donoghue let me know how your review of the book would go.

 

Review of Four New Words For Love by Michael Cannon

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes, or which give some clues to a character’s development. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

Gina lives in a high-rise flat in Glasgow. With an alcoholic dad and a runaway mother she doesn’t have much in life except for her two best friends, Lolly and Vanessa. When Gina discovers she’s pregnant to a guy who has no intention of being there for her she decides that she will provide everything her family needs. Then tragedy strikes. Unable to accept that this will be her lot in life, Gina abandons her flat and her friends and finds herself on the lonely streets of London. There she meets Christopher, a widowed husband in need of some direction, and the two form a friendship which will change both of their lives.

Things I liked about this book

As a fellow Glaswegian, the parts of the story based in the city were interesting to read. Cannon paints a picture of Glaswegians as gritty, humorous and full of affection. But the details of his working-class environment far too often traded on that old cliché of ‘at least we know how to throw a party’. That’s not to say there weren’t moments of tenderness and weight to be found within his character’s lives, but far too often these instances were spoiled by caricature.

As a central character Gina is highly likeable and it was easy to be moved by her story. But for a character clearly in possession of such clarity about her standing in life I didn’t always understand her actions. As her story progressed I wanted to learn more about her and to find that she had somehow managed to reconcile her steely determination and intelligence with an ending worthy of her character, but this was sadly not to be.

Things I didn’t like about this book

The blurb doesn’t effectively sell the story at the heart of this book. To call Gina homeless when she first encounters Christopher is actually to miss-sell her predicament entirely. Far too often the story meanders down ineffective tangents (Gina’s mum, it would have been fine to leave her in Newcastle) rather than getting to the heart of what’s wrong.

Christopher and Gina’s friendship very quickly and inexplicably settles into a comfort which doesn’t quite ring true and Christopher’s story in itself is less compelling than Gina’s. Far from being “shattered”, as the blurb would have you believe, their domestic idyll is merely rippled and the section of the story in which Christopher goes in search of Gina in Glasgow felt like dead weight – a way for the story to thrust middle-class Christopher into the heart of a truly working-class environment in which he seemed to learn nothing.

It was also a shame that early on Lolly had been drawn in caricature, the real life embodiment of ‘a tart with a heart’, because by the time her chapter of the book came along I couldn’t buy the tenderness at the heart of her story.

Final Thoughts

Four New Words For Love is a frustrating read. In Gina there is the makings of a central character with great depth but in the end she becomes a part of the cycle which has caused some of her problems.

If you’ve read Four New Words for Love by Michael Cannon let me know what your review of the book would be.

Review of Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes, or which give some clues to a character’s development. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

With no memory of her mother or her sister, Kitty Wellington has always felt a strong compulsion to understand who she is. Brought up by her painter father, she is surrounded by brothers who are largely disconnected from each other’s lives. She has questions but they often go unanswered. In the mire of all of this Kitty is also reeling from a loss which no one around her seems able to mention. Compelled to understand who she is and to change her life Kitty’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, but will her decisions give her the answers she seeks?

Things I liked about this book

Morrall’s story slowly unravels to reveal a narrative rich in emotion, texture and depth. In Kitty I found a narrator who at first appeared to be wholly unreliable; but by the end of the book I found myself greatly empathising with her emotions, though not always satisfied with her choices. Her story twists and turns in ways which I had not foreseen when I first began to read the novel and unsurprisingly colour, and the description of it, frequently takes over the narrative, invoking a strong sense of place and person.

The journey into discovering how loss manifests itself is right at the heart of this story and is dealt with in a manner which is all too real. The other characters who surround Kitty have strong individual voices (something often lacking in debut novels), but their lives are only revealed in minor detail.

Ultimately, this is Kitty’s story and it’s told from her point of view. We are given unique insight into a woman who is perhaps at her lowest ebb. Her displacement within a family who do not seem to function, and her deep loss as a mother-to be are both beautifully conceived and grippingly poignant. Morrall has created a story which is inflected with colour and light, but which also reveals the darkness which can sometimes take over our lives.

Things I didn’t like about this book

Although I empathise with Kitty I’m not entirely convinced that I like her. The darkness which pervades the latter third of the story, and which is glimpsed at in early parts of the narrative too, often sees the reader become a sort of horrified bystander. As Kitty makes increasingly rash and impulsive decisions we are forced to watch from the side-lines, unable to act.

Although we’re given insight into some of the processes going on in Kitty’s head, we’re never really allowed to see beyond her frame of vision in order to understand how her actions affect those around her. And they surely must affect those around her greatly. In that sense this novel is perhaps too selfish, too consumed with how everything affects Kitty, rather than casting an eye outwards to reveal how Kitty affects everything.

Perhaps this in in itself isn’t a negative, after all Kitty’s loss is compounded by her need to keep it locked inside. But it never really feels like Kitty fully understands how her actions have allowed others to suffer.

Final thoughts

Astonishing Splashes of Colour is a fantastic, if not slightly flawed, debut novel. In delving into loss of such a personal kind Clare Morrall presents a narrative which is harrowing and artfully conceived.

If you’ve read Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall let me know what your review of the book would be.

 

 

Review of Nod by Adrian Barnes

nod_cover_0

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes, or which give some clues to a character’s development. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

Paul is a writer on etymology who lives in an apartment in Vancouver with his long-term girlfriend, Tanya. His latest not-so-finished manuscript is Nod, “a book about the history of side-tracked words, of orphaned and deformed words.” He wakes one day to find that his girlfriend, and almost everyone else on the planet, has gone through the previous night without a wink of sleep. Paul, on the other hand, slept soundly, dreaming of a golden light which flooded the world. But as the days pass and those around him begin to battle psychosis from their sleep deprived state, the city tears itself apart. Suddenly, Paul finds himself in a new world. A world of his own creation: Nod.

Things I liked about this book

Nod is quite possibly the darkest and creepiest piece of fiction I’ve ever read. From the outset Barnes plunges you into a grotesque and deeply affecting reality in which all the old rules of decorum, decency and civility are burned; to be replaced by chaos, disorder and anarchy. Paul’s narrative voice is one of calm, this adds to the uneasy feeling enveloping the story.

On this insomnia induced dystopia Barnes has cleverly written a story in which you’re never quite sure which way the plot may twist or turn. The language in the book rattles and hums with intelligence and clarity (as you would expect when you have a central character who’s interested in words). The wider cast of oddities, curiosities and weirdos who populate the story also add to its truly thought-provoking nature and the breakdown of civilisation detailed in the narrative is both heart-breaking and cruel.

The story which plays out between Paul and Tanya begins as one of mundane routine, before twisting into something far more gruesome. But there’s genuine heart to be found amidst the horror and I found myself deeply affected by the fact that there were to be no easy fixes found within their arc.

Things I didn’t like about this book

There aren’t many from my point of view, although I do believe that Nod is a book that may only appeal to a certain demographic, interested in end of the world type narratives. Some may also take issue with the way Barnes plots his book; there are no nicely rounded off chapters and questions mostly go unanswered. I found this to be utterly original and refreshing, but others may not.

One particular element of the story which could have been smoothed out for me is the early transition from everyday life to dystopian nightmare. The breakdown of society comes thick and fast in the book, perhaps a little too fast for me to feel that it was utterly convincing. However, once the transition happens the pace of the story is actually frighteningly believable.

Final thoughts

Nod is simply outstanding. Barnes is clearly an author intrigued with the balance of life and death and in his first published novel he has written a book which casts a dark and eerie shadow across a dystopian world all too easy to identify with.

If you’ve read Nod by Adrian Barnes let me know what your review of the book would be.

 

Review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

SetWidth465-Bone-Clocks

Please note, I try not to spoil the books I review by revealing plot points. However, sometimes I may mention elements of a story which highlight the route the narrative takes, or which give some clues to a character’s development. To minimise spoilers I ask that you don’t read a review unless you’ve read the book already, or are happy to know some of the details of the story. Thanks.

Quick (spoiler-free) synopsis

David Mitchell’s sixth book, The Bone Clocks, follows Holly Skyes, a young woman who has semi-psychic abilities. The story is driven by its five first-person narrators, including Holly herself, all of whom are linked to Holly in some way. The main thrust of the story involves a hidden war between the Anchorites, a faction who have gained mortality by killing others, and the Horologists, a group who are able to reincarnate. The story is not only measured by its five very distinctive points of view but also by the leaps in time which occur as the story progresses. We follow Holly from her teenage years in Gravesend in 1984, right through to her elderly days in Sheep’s Head in 2043. For most of the story Holly is unaware of the secret warfare going on between two distinct factions in time but she is unequivocally tied to its fate, whether she understands it or not.

Things I liked about this book

This is an utterly original and compelling story which lured me in through its adept first-person narration. As the central figure, it’s easy to warm to Holly Sykes. When first introduced she is a young girl tangled up with the wrong guy and in possession of a steely determination to go her own way in life. The early psychic elements of the narrative are cleverly hinted at before emerging in bursts and then streams later on. As each chapter unfolded, and I discovered a new character in this complex story, the narrative cleverly wrapped around its central premise before reaching an exciting conclusion. There are several B plots introduced in each chapter, some more persuasive than others and I found that often the characters I started out disliking became highly valued and important as the story progressed. If a particular chapter wasn’t holding as much sway with me as I’d liked the up-side was that a whole new decade, city and cast of characters would emerge in the next chapter anyway. At first this seemed disorientating but by the end of the book it was utterly refreshing.

Things I didn’t like about this book

There are many characters to get to grips with and it can be quite easy to get lost among the names, especially if you’re prone to putting a book down for a day or two before picking it back up. It’s also clear that not all characters are created equal and some narrators in this story are more irksome than others. That being said there are compelling B plots that weave their way through the main thrust of the story; Ed Bruebeck’s story is particularly compelling, weaving elements of his time as a war journalist in Iraq through the more psychic elements of the narrative in Brighton, 2004.

Final thoughts

The Bone Clocks is utterly fascinating fiction. Although it feels like a book which, at first, is difficult to decipher, by sticking with the narrative the rewards become abundant.

If you’ve read The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell let me know what your review of this book would be.